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Will Customizations Kill Your Cloud?

I got a tweet from a Higher Education vendor this morning (I get lots of them, so that wasn’t a surprise). This one was reminding me of how many days remain before the deadline to upgrade to Banner 9. They have this nifty countdown clock and everything.

It’s a good reminder. The days until December 31st, 2018 will go by pretty fast.

It’s not as if Banner 8 will cease to function, of course. This isn’t a Y2K situation. However, it’s essential to have a good plan that will allow you to “exist in the cloud” when the time comes. The concept of what is meant by “being in the cloud” has been addressed pretty well, so I won’t dive into it here (Jim Ritchey’s Here a Cloud, There a Cloud, Everywhere a Cloud and Phil Hill’s clarification on Cloud, SaaS, and Multi-Tenant Language are great places to start if you’re new to the conversation).

As Jim noted in his recent blog, Banner 8 Support, one of the larger “opportunities” facing institutions at this transition point is how to deal with customizations (modifications, add-ons, etc.). Customizations to an ERP are expensive and time-consuming, so, let’s assume that they weren’t put in place just for fun. Before we dive into what to do moving forward, it might be good to take a look back to see how we got here.

In the late 80s and early 90s, a few ERP vendors entered the Higher Education scene with offerings that were generally based on the needs of a handful of early-adopter customers. The systems were not very configurable, the reports (if there were any) rarely fit the needs of even a few campuses, and the assumed business processes were not very flexible. Key services, like admissions, course catalog (calendar for non-US folks), scheduling, registration, academic history, and degree audit largely followed the path of the paper-driven systems that proceeded them. The working assumption was to automate the current process as best as possible – but the software wasn’t always up to the task, and the campus community was asked to change their business practices to align better with what the software was capable of.

And then the President of your (my) Institution said something like: “We won’t let software dictate how we run this institution!” Which translated to: Launch the customizations! (At least, that’s what we heard).

But, funding wasn’t always readily available to handle the effort required. So much had been spent on acquiring and implementing the ERP, there wasn’t much left to develop and deliver high-quality, well-supported customizations.

Enter the shadow systems: “Excel can do anything”. “MS Access has a database that can handle that”. “We can spin up a server from my office to handle the event registration. Yeah, I think we can handle credit card payments on that same server”. Makes your head spin. At least it did mine!

However, even these “shadow” solutions often required changes to the baseline ERP software to work.   New database columns needed to be added, resulting in new fields added to screens. Business logic often needed tweaking to handle the content of the new field. Whether the customizations were overt changes to the baseline software (Oracle Forms, Pro*C, reports, batch jobs, etc.) or essentially shadow system “add-ons”, they were still customizations. Customizations were generally essential to make the software line up with how the institution chose to do business.

But, stepping out of the past and into the present – custom software development isn’t the core business of a University or College, and it’s no longer nearly as necessary as it once was. Customizing Banner in the traditional sense is probably not the best way to address mission-critical capabilities. A better approach might be Ellucian’s extensibility framework, which allows for customizations without modifying source code. Another consideration is the Ethos Platform (more on this in a future blog).

Regardless of the pending Banner 9 upgrade deadline, this is a good time for an institution to assess where they are, and where they want to go. It’s time to leave the results of the past behind and use this transition point as an opportunity to improve the value from technology.

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